Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter – Alexis Hall

Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter – Alexis HallThe Affair of the Mysterious Letter
by Alexis Hall
Publisher: Ace
Publication Date: June 18, 2019
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 352
Source: NetGalley

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

My rating: One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas' stock-in-trade.

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Content warnings: View Spoiler »

While I can’t say I’m terribly familiar with the original source material, I’m a pretty big fan of Sherlock Holmes adaptations. While my favorite so far has been the excellent The Tea Master and the Detective, this Lovecraftian take might just knock it out of that spot. It’s utterly weird and completely queer and I really can’t recommend it enough.

In all the time I knew her, Ms. Shaharazad Haas never showed the slightest regard for the rules of society, the laws of the land, or the inviolable principles of the cosmos.

After being injured while fighting an interdimensional war, Captain John Wyndham is forced to retire from battling forces set on the complete annihilation of the universe and accept a position as an alchemist. The reduced pay means he can’t be particularly picky about lodgings, so when he answers the announcement of one Shaharazad Hass, sorceress, he’s willing to be a bit more accepting of her indulgences, blasphemies, etc. It’s not, however, until one of Hass’s former lovers comes to her with a blackmail letter and a plea for help that Wyndham gets drawn into her world of vampires, alternate dimensions, time travel, ancient gods, and unspeakable horrors.

“I have no doubt you think me very foolish. But I shall always offer aid to those who may need it and, on this principle, I shall not compromise.”
Ms. Haas put one hand to her face and the other upon my shoulder. “You are going to get so utterly killed.”

The overarching frame is that Wyndham’s serializing this account in a magazine, and while it feels a bit overdone at times, I think this would be a much less satisfying book without it. Wyndham was born in a Puritanical cult and, despite attending university in (and now living in) the more cosmopolitan city of Khelathra-Ven, he still retains a lot of the morals and a sort of wide-eyed innocence. Wyndham is just utterly charming – there’s a lot of hilariously fastidious deadpan commentary and redactions (heaven forbid a character utter a swear word!). While he views himself as a simple man and completely unremarkable compared to Hass, in truth it’s his principles and bravery that drive most of the plot and make him the perfect foil for her. Hass, for her part, is brilliantly profane and utterly without morals (at least when they don’t suit her), and seeing what bit of insanity she’d come up with next was a ridiculous amount of fun. While she’s the one who’s usually pushing the plot forward through arcane and usually nefarious means, it’s Wyndham who really stole the show for me.

Oh ——. You’re Shaharazad ——ing Haas, aren’t you?”
“Currently only Shaharazad Haas, but I could be ——ing if you play your cards right.”
“For someone with your reputation, you’ve got some really —— ing cheesy lines.”
“I have two modes. Flirting and turning your blood to boiling lye within your veins. Which do you prefer?”

The world building is excellent, full of magic and incredible detail, though due to its depth can be alternately either confusing due to lack of explanation or overwhelmingly info-dumpy. I find it hard to complain about, though, because I found it all utterly fascinating and desperately wanted to know more about, well, everything. This book is also delightfully queer. Hass is, for lack of a term that explicitly includes relations with dead gods and other eldritch creatures, pansexual and Wyndham is trans. There’s a f/f couple at the center of the blackmail plot, Wyndham flirts with an extremely unsuitable man (and almost has, uh, relations with even more unsuitable men), and besides some barely mentioned transphobia (Wyndham’s family doesn’t approve of him), it’s all very much accepted as not even worth a mention.

Overall, this book is an absolute treat. There are, in true Victorian serial fashion, several references to other adventures that I’m desperately hoping will become future books. If you’re looking for a queer fantasy with a big dollop of mystery and eldritch horror, this is exactly what you need!

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